A genuine American hero is gone. W. Edwards Deming, advocate of quality and constancy, counsel to manufacturers worldwide, died December 20 at age 93. Dr. Deming is best known for priming idea-hungry Japanese industrialists with concepts that fueled the growth of a manufacturing juggernaut.
But the legacy of the ``quality meister'' means more to tire dealers than just another obituary of a distant industry figure. To the contrary, it should be a template for improvement and growth.
Too many people focus on his more esoteric statements as if they were philosophical exercises impossible to implement in the real world. Critics charge imposing his ideas means painful, total overhauls of an entire business.
I believe Dr. Deming's ideas are as valid for tire stores as for successful large corporations. In this column and next, I'll show readers why the same ideas that made ``Japanese'' synonymous with quality can also bolster their stores' reputations-and bottom lines.
On one hand, adopting the entire Deming philosophy would require a complete overhaul of some businesses. But many of his principles can be implemented right away- provided someone has the foresight and backbone to do so.
Trained in mathematics, physics and statistics, Dr. Deming taught for a while before working as a mathematical physicist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He later joined the U.S. Census Bureau as an adviser in statistical sampling.
Meanwhile, he was involved with pre-war productivity experiments that became part of the foundation for today's statistical process control (SPC) techniques. These included monitoring the rate of defects while management-unknown to the workers-gradually varied factors such as the temperature and brightness of the workplace.
Dr. Deming was an adviser to the U.S. War Department, helping the post-World War II Allied occupation force in Japan develop more accurate census taking techniques. Some Japanese statisticians who saw merit in those techniques invited Dr. Deming to address 50 of their country's top executives.
That address to the Industry Club of Japan in 1950 won him converts. In an era when domestic manufacturers were pumping out goods to meet pent up post war demand, the Japanese embraced the Deming philosophy that quality would eventually outpace quantity. The rest is history.
The ``beads experiment,'' which Dr. Deming performed at every seminar, exemplifies how easily we can miss the real solution to manufacturing and service problems. I attended a Deming seminar and participated in the experiment. (Although 90 at the time, he spoke clearly and energetically.)
Dr. Deming played the boss who needed good people to help keep his company operating. Audience volunteers-myself included-were ``willing workers'' who vowed to do the job.
Using a paddle-shaped tool with a set of bead-sized indentations in it, we took turns scooping beads from a box filled with a mixture of red and white beads. Red and white were the same dimension, but reds were dubbed defects. It was soon evident that we couldn't avoid scooping some red beads.
Between turns, Dr. Deming, like a real boss, scolded, warned and cajoled us when our red bead count went up; praised and encouraged us when the red count dropped. Standing toe-to-toe with each ``worker,'' he used all the cute or clever comments every manager or foreman knows.
Just as statistics have proven, we randomly pulled more red beads one time, fewer on the next try, and so forth.
When ``production'' looked bad, he motioned to imaginary wall posters with rah-rah company slogans, urging us to heed the posters' themes. But alas, we continued to scoop red beads and the defect count ``bankrupted'' our mythical employer.
The main theme here is that willing workers and clever incentives won't overcome a fundamental problem such as a vendor who can't eliminate red beads from the raw material he supplies.
How much time and manpower have tire dealers spent culling ``red beads'' such as brake squeal and poor brake pad life, only to discover the real answer is recommending and installing OE-quality friction material meant for the application?
Until my next column, ponder the number of ``red beads'' you're trying to cull from your stores and reconsider where the true solutions may lie.